Stop calling it Classical – get a Genrectomy

Sep 25, 12 • 3 Comments

Previously on the Genrectomy Chronicles, read: “Kind Of


Dear Ljova: You’re one who is loath to talk about musical genres, yet, you’ve written so much music that could easily be bunched into several directions.  On your albums, it often feels like a genre sampler. Would you disagree?

I try not to write “genre pieces”, but things that were merely “inspired by”. Of the examples embedded above, “Untango” is not a tango, in a sense that it you cannot dance a tango to it. Similarly with “Crutchahoy Nign” or “Bagel on the Malecon”, they are neither klezmer nor Latin, but they organically reference certain aspects of those genres.

How would you classify these pieces, then?

It’s funny, because if you look for “Bagel on the Malecon” in the PumpAudio licensing catalog, they’ve actually filed it under “Classical – Modern/Avant-Garde”.  It’s a miracle, but it’s been licensed several times.

Does it matter how work is classified? If a friend sends you a link to a YouTube video (and let’s face it, YouTube is the default music player for 64% of teens today), is your first thought “how do you classify it” or “is it good”?  Nobody I know browses YouTube by genre (is there even a way?) — genre seems to be the thing that no artist wants to talk about, but everyone wants to be on the radio.

There will always be bands / ensembles / composers, who place “the tradition” on a higher pedestal than their own work, who will write authentic tangos, klezmer, Beatles-era pop songs, authentic 4-movement symphonies and so on. But the best pieces, like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” will be born out of experiment, of rebellion, and senseless to classify. (And look, that song is still on the radio today.)

Back in 2000, as a beginner composer, I wrote 21 tracks for a theatre show, in many genres, including rock, classical, club, trance, jazz, etc. (hear it at right, rescued by archive.org). I enjoyed all this, but back then, I wanted to be a film composer who was a jack-of-all-trades. In 2012, with so many independent labels and acts looking to license their music, being a chameleon is increasingly unnecessary, because if a filmmaker wants a certain sound, they will find “the guy” or “the band” that has that very sound. Most likely, they’ve heard them before – in another soundtrack, at a show, or on YouTube. That’s why you see more and more films scored by bands than film composers, and more films essentially scored by music supervisors.

What kind of music do you write now?

Lately, I’ve been working on commissions that have been inspired by poetry (as in the case of the Rumi poem that inspired “Everywhere is Falling Everywhere“), biography (“Culai“), historical recording (“Sirota“), and, most recently, cycling (“Greenway“).  All of these were fully notated; at the same time, I created an hour of music for a dance project by Aszure Barton, principally inspired by the dancers, which I recorded myself and didn’t notate, but plan to later on, so that others can perform it live.

That sounds classical — can we just file you under classical?

The funny thing about the Classical genre is that it’s arguably the most welcoming, and one with the most opportunities and support, especially in big cities. You can write a grant to get a commission to get something performed in a venue with decent acoustics, possibly a sound crew, and have a PR department help you promote, and magically everyone is paid — and the contract is settled 2-3 years in advance. You can do this in some jazz, too – but these opportunities are few and far between in other genres. If your work can be lumped into Classical or Jazz, you have the advantage of belonging to a whole canon of composers and a thriving community of professional and amateur musicians that speak your language, all of whom are trying to rescue the genre from its self-proclaimed perpetual death.  Good luck getting a grant to write a pop song..

There is no advantage for me to refute my conservatory training, notation skills, or that my music is being played by many classically-trained ensembles today. I am so grateful for and humbled by this — but there is a need to go beyond.

What do you mean, “go beyond”?

We need to stop lumping contemporary composers into “classical”.  Yes, it creates opportunities and context, but it is also an anchor that drags us down — by which I mean that our aims should be higher, to write “pop” music, to write things that a kid from the hood would find weirdly fascinating.  We should be trying to write the most intensely personal music, and making viral videos, play not in venues but in communities, and optimize programs not for variety but intensity.

Many classical groups and venues indeed understand this well already, and try their best to transcend — but there is still a feeling that you’re at a classical presentation.. There is too much formality, between the printed programs, ushers, explanations, the shushing..

So would you rather be in a loud bar, where you can’t hear the music because everybody is drinking and talking, and the jukebox across the room is playing the hits?

Actually, those are the very opportunities we should be looking for.  Similar to playing in the subway, the loud bar & jukebox is just an allegory for a world that hasn’t heard you yet. It’s similar to uploading a video to YouTube and sending it to your friends, then having them share with their friends.  In a sea of Youtube videos, it has to stand out.  Similarly, in a bar, you have win people over one by one.  I generally support what Classical Revolution is doing, playing music in clubs, but I hope they’ll change the name. It cannot be about Classical or Revolution, just like a TV channel can’t be named “American Movie Classics”, or Amazon’s store called “Internet Books”.  It’s an infiltration that has to come from behind, that ultimately has to be about a larger cause than reviving the classical genre.

A quiet listening room experience is often like a loud bar — some people texting under their seats, others live-tweeting and taking video, others dozing off, some waiting to go to the bathroom, to kiss, to drink, and so on. (When I was a kid, I would often sleep through the first half of a symphony program, because the adrenaline surge of running up the stairs to the hall, trying to be on time, didn’t mesh well with sitting dead-quietly in your seat for 45 minutes.)

So really, no genres?

Really. Genres are a racket to sell records in a record store — we have neither records nor stores anymore. If people like Stevie Wonder, it’s because his music is magical, not because it’s in a genre.  You can be in the same genre as Stevie, you can even cover Stevie’s songs – but that won’t be nearly as magical.  You have to be master of own your turf.

 

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3 Responses to Stop calling it Classical – get a Genrectomy

  1. I especially love your point about YouTube being genre-free.

  2. Lev 'Ljova' Zhurbin talks the talk on restrictive genre labels. Come hear him + his band walk the walk on Oct. 4 at Ljova and the Kontraband at Symphony Space / Thalia Theatre.

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LJOVA (Lev Zhurbin) - film composer, arranger, violist | music for film, Ljova and the Kontraband, and other projects

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